The Space Race: A Giant Leap for Mankind

By Jack Ripley | May 11, 2024

In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to complete a full orbit around the Earth during Project Mercury

After World War II, tensions rose between the US and the Soviet Union, which led to a nuclear arms race. This led to the two superpowers investing a lot of time and energy into the development of rocket technology, and this led to the Space Race, which began when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. This satellite was launched in 1957, and it sent a radio signal back to Earth that could be detected around the world. The United States launched Explorer 1 approximately a year after the launch of Sputnik, making shockwaves as well as important contributions to science.

Before the world knew what hit it, the two nations engaged in a race to put a man in space. The Space Race ultimately led to the US sending a man to the moon, and there were several manned missions to the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972. These missions to the cosmos allowed humanity to learn a tremendous amount about outer space and our nearest celestial neighbor, the moon. Strap in as we take a look at how the Space Race paved the way for the world we live in today.

 

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NASA

John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth, taking his spin around the globe in 1962. This famous spaceflight represented a major step forward in the American space program, and it took place approximately one year after the first American traveled to space. John Glenn orbited the Earth at an altitude of 100-162 miles, and he spent four hours and 56 minutes in space.

Glenn circled the Earth three times during this famous mission, and the capsule traveled at speeds of more than 17,000 miles per hour. Millions of Americans tuned in to the broadcast of this voyage and grew inspired by the infinite possibilities that space travel promised.

Neil Armstrong stands in front of the X-15 rocket plane in 1959

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NASA on The Commons/Flickr

Neil Armstrong was one of the first Americans to fly an experimental aircraft known as the X-15, which was designed to reach the boundary of space. This aircraft was created through a collaboration between the Air Force and NASA. In fact, this early rocket-powered aircraft could reach altitudes that exceed the lower boundary of space (approximately 62 miles). This test aircraft was capable of reaching speeds of more than Mach 5 or more than 5 times the speed of sound. Pilots that exceeded an altitude of 50 miles with the aircraft received astronaut wings.

These early test flights provided important data about the physics of spaceflight, which played a critical role in ensuring that astronauts were able to safely travel to a high enough altitude to achieve an orbit. The first X-15 flight to reach the boundary of outer space was on May 12, 1960. Neil Armstrong flew several X-15 flights, including one where he reached an altitude of approximately 140,000 feet.